Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Late, Great Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron, the screenwriter responsible for such films as When Harry Met Sally (1989) and You've Got Mail (1998), passed today at the age of 71. The cause was pneumonia which resulted from acute myeloid leukaemia.

Nora Ephron was born 19 May 1941 in New York City. Her parents were Phoebe and Henry Ephron, screenwriters who wrote such films as Three Is a Family (1944) and Carousel (1956). Miss Ephron was only four years old when her family moved to Beverly Hills, California. She attended Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. In college she wrote for the school newspaper. In the summer of 1961 she served as an intern in the John F. Kennedy White House (in an essay for The New York Times in 2003 Miss Ephron joked that she was probably the only intern at whom President Kennedy never made a pass). Following her graduation from college in 1962 she moved to New York City where she went to work in the mail room at Newsweek. After she and some of her friends published a parody of The New York Post, she was offered a job at the actual Post by then publisher Dorothy Schiff.  She worked at the Post for five years.

Following her stint at The New York Post, Nora Ephron began writing for magazines. Among the publications  for which she wrote were New York, Esquire, and The New York Times Magazine. In the Seventies she would become a regular columnist for Esquire. Her essays were often humorous and sometimes even controversial. In 1968 she wrote a parody of Women's Wear Daily  published in Cosmopolitan that was so scathing that the publishers of Women's Wear Daily threatened a lawsuit. Her essays would be published in several collections, the first being  Crazy Salad in 1972.

Miss Ephron's first encounter with screenwriting would come about due to her marriage to Carl Bernstein, who with Bob Woodward broke the Watergate scandal. Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein were unhappy with the screenplay adaptation William Goldman had made of their book on the Watergate scandal, All the President's Men. Miss Ephron and Mr. Bernstein then rewrote the script. In the end their version would not be used for the film, but it would prove to be Miss Ephron's introduction to screenwriting. It was in 1973 that she wrote an episode of the short lived sitcom Adam's Rib (based on the classic film of the same name).

It would only be a few years later that Nora Ephron would receive her first screenwriting credit, co-writing the movie Silkwood (1983) with Alice Arlen. The film received several Oscar nominations, including one for Best Original Screenplay. She later adapted her novel Heartburn for the 1986 film of the same name and wrote the screenplay for the 1989 film Cookie. It was also in 1989 that what may be Nora Ephron's biggest cinematic claim to fame was released. When Harry Met Sally earned Miss Ephron another Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. It also proved enormously popular upon its release, something which has continued to this day. When Harry Met Sally ranked at #6 on the American Film Institute's 2008 Top Ten Romantic Comedies and ranked at #15 on website Rotten Tomatoes' 25 Best Romantic Comedies.

From the Nineties into the Naughts, Nora Ephron would write the films My Blue Heaven (1990), This is My Life (1992), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Mixed Nuts (1994), Michael (1996), You've Got Mail (1998), Hanging Up (2000), Bewitched (2005), and Julie & Julia (2009). With This is My Life Nora Ephron began directing as well. She directed the films  This is My LifeSleepless in SeattleMixed NutsMichael, You've Got Mail, Lucky Numbers (2000), Bewitched, and Julie & Julia.

As an essayist there can be no doubt that Nora Ephron was one of the best of the 20th Century. Her essays were deeply honest, sometimes a bit irreverent, and sometimes even daring. Miss Ephron could often be self effacing and it could well be that the biggest target of her humour was herself. In the end Nora Ephron could be counted as one of the great American humourists, along with Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker.

Of course, as great as Miss Ephron's essays were, it was her screenplays that were her claim to fame. In my humble opinion Nora Ephron was one of the last great, American screenwriters. In many ways her romantic comedies seem more like they could have been made in the 1930's and 1940's than the 1990's and 2000's. In an age when most romantic comedies are shallow fantasies made for women in which the male protagonists are generally little more than cardboard cutouts, Nora Ephron wrote romantic comedies that were intelligent, witty, and character driven. Her characters were so four dimensional that they often reminded the average person of people he or she might know in real life.  Nora Ephron actually wrote about men and their feelings better than many male screenwriters!

Indeed, Nora Ephron wrote one of my favourite romantic comedies of all time, When Harry Met Sally. I also loved two of her other romantic comedies, Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. All three of these films remind me of the romantic comedies of the 1930's and 1940's (here I must point out that You've Got Mail was based on the same source material as the classic The Shop Around the Corner and In the Good Old Summertime) more than they do more recent crop of so called romantic comedies. It is for that reason that Nora Ephron has many followers among classic film buffs who might never watch Rumour Has It or 27 Dresses. For that matter, Nora Ephron may well have wrote the last romantic comedies that could be enjoyed by both men and women. I know many men who love When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You've Got Mail, men who would never willingly watch most modern day romantic films.

In the end Nora Ephron was an exceptionally talented, extremely funny woman. She was a great essayist, a great screenwriter, and, perhaps above all else, a great humourist. I rather suspect her collections of essays and her films will remain in distribution for centuries to come.


Raquelle said...

Thanks for such a great post! Sorry I'm late to the game, still catching up on my blog reading. I didn't know that Nora Ephron was an intern at the WH during the JFK administration! Also I forgot she wrote Hanging Up (2000). That's such a terrible film. In fact, it still traumatizes me to this day because it shows a dying Walter Matthau. But I forgive her since You've Got Mail (1998) practically changed my life for the better! The Ephron family has produced some great talents for sure.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Quelle, I really have to agree with you about "Hanging Up!" It is an awful movie. But then given the number of great films she wrote (When Harry Met Sally, You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle), I won't hold it against her. She was so talented.